David Howes: Sensing the Unseen – Response

Sensing the Unseen – Response
Written by David Howes

We have been asked to explore the notion of “sensing the unseen” in relation to our own work, which in my case has to do with the anthropology of the senses. The notion appeals to me for two reasons. First, it decenters vision and thereby opens up a space for the “other” senses to come to the fore and into their own. Not all perceiving has to do with seeing, though one would hardly know it from the way sensing (a whole body, multisensory activity) tends to be assimilated to seeing in common parlance (e.g., going to “see” the doctor, or “seeing” someone) as well as scientific models of perception. Breaking up this hegemony, by setting sight in its place and delving into the life of the non-visual senses, is a salutary opening.

Second, “sensing the unseen” focuses attention on the margins of perception, the “just-out-of-sight,” and thereby extends at the same time as it troubles the bounds of sense, or limits of the sensible. It calls into question the Copernican Revolution, instigated by the philosopher Immanuel Kant, which put the “categories of the understanding” first and subordinated the operation of the senses to them. This Kantian position, which gave rise to modern day “cognitive science,” eclipsed the longstanding Aristotelian position, which was more sensible in orientation. According to Aristotle, there is nothing in the intellect that was not first in the senses. His account of the senses and the intellect is given in De Anima (On the Soul). It holds that all living beings (including plants) have a nutritive soul, animals and humans share a sensitive soul, and humans alone possess a rational soul (the intellect proper). In the Aristotelian tradition, many faculties which we moderns would consider to be cognitive, like memory and imagination, were understood to be sensitive (that is, faculties of the sensitive soul), so that memory and imagination remained forms of sensing rather than thinking. Thinking or ratiocination proper was delayed until after the common sense (sensus communis) had made sense of the deliverances of the five external senses.

There is no mention of the common sense in any contemporary textbook of psychology. This faculty has been lost, just as memory and imagination have been extricated from the sensorium and reclassified as aspects of cognition. This is a result of the general precession of cognition and diminution of sensation in the wake of Kant’s Copernican Revolution. However, the cognitivist (Kantian) position is not a good starting point from which to do cross-cultural research, since in many if not most traditions the understanding is conceived of as a sensuous faculty. For example, in the Buddhist tradition, mind is one of the senses—the sixth sense, in fact. In other words, the intellect is not superior to the senses but on par with them, one of them. In other traditions, the understanding is assimilated to hearing. Even in our own tradition the understanding is often folded into the senses, most notably vision: reason, thought, cogitation are all associated with light and sight. This is what makes it so important to probe the sensorium, instead of skipping it to focus on the supposedly underlying cognitive or neural mechanisms. Rudolf Arnheim was on the right track when he wrote Visual Thinking, only he was mistaken to assume that his visualist account of cognition could hold for all humanity. There are important differences to the ways in which the senses are distinguished and ranked across cultures, and corresponding differences to the ways in which the intellect is beholden to them.

“Sensing the unseen” nicely captures the spirit in which much classical and current research in the anthropology of the senses is being conducted—learning to listen like the Kaluli (Feld 1990) or underwater (Helmreich 2007); trying to sort through the respective contribution of biology and culture (not to mention geography) to the production of the taste of place or terroir (Trubek 2008); apprenticing oneself to a capoeira master or master woodworker so as to acquire the embodied skills of these pursuits firsthand (Downey 2005, Marchand 2010). As these and many other studies attest, participant sensation has taken the place of participant observation as the ethnographic method of choice. “Sensing culture” is the new “writing culture” and there has been a corresponding proliferation in the means of sensation. For example, some ethnographies now come with DVDs (Hahn 2007), or as in Steve Feld’s contribution to this special collection, directly on-line. Of course, they still lack the smell and taste of foreign or familiar places. When will that deficit be corrected?

While “sensing the unseen” thus evokes some of the best practices of contemporary anthropology, it also touches on what is probably the most basic question of anthropology. How do others perceive the world? Franz Boas was fascinated with this question, and so were the members of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait of 1898. They took with them a huge battery of tests —a tintometer, algometer, olfactometer, Politzer’s Hörmesser, Galton’s whistle, various taste solutions, Haken’s E, the Müller-Lyer illusion, etc. — to measure the sensory acuity of the natives. They wanted to find out whether the Islanders, as representatives of “primitive man,” really could see or hear or smell further than Europeans (i.e. sense the unseen), as the reports of missionaries and other travelers concerning “primitives” in different places had suggested. The results of the tests were inconclusive, and the interpretations questionable for all kinds of reasons, such as equipment failure and incommensurability, but above all cultural bias (Howes 2011:437-39). Most seriously, the Cambridge men—Haddon, Rivers and company—never did inquire into native understandings and practices of the senses. Nor did they question the completeness of their list of senses. That would have been unscientific, which is to say not cognizable within the scope of the doctrine of psychophysics which informed both the design of their instrumentation and the sorts of hypotheses they were prepared to entertain.

The idea of the senses of indigenous or “tribal” peoples being more acute than those of Westerners persists today. For example, it cropped up recently as a way of explaining how the indigenous inhabitants (e.g. the Ongee and Sentinelese) of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal were able to escape the giant wave that crashed on their shores the morning of December 26, 2004 by fleeing to higher ground. They did so just in time, as if forewarned. What tipped them off? It was observed that “Some animals have acute sense of hearing and smell that allow them to determine something coming towards them long before humans might know that something is there;” and, just as there were widespread reports of animals anticipating the disaster and fleeing, so it was with the Ongee and Sentinelese: “They can smell the air. They can gauge the depth of the sea with the sound of their oars. They have a sixth sense which we do not possess” according to a local environmentalist (quoted in Howes 2009:13).

The invocation of a sixth sense is both intriguing and problematic. It destabilizes the model of the five-sense sensorium, which is good, but why is it projected onto the other (the animal other, the “primitive” other)? In point of fact, the notion of a sixth sense has a very long (and contested) history in the West as well, with all sorts of different candidates arising at different times to vie for this position—from speech to proprioception, for example, and from Mesmer’s animal magnetism to ESP (see http://sixthsensereader.org; Howes 2009). To study the sixth sense, in whatever form it takes, is to resist the closure which Kant sought to impose on the senses and sense experience through his Copernican Revolution of philosophy. “Sensing the unseen,” by focusing our attention on the historically and culturally shifting margins of perception, opens the way for us to explore and come to understand the sensorium in the expanded field which it actually occupies.



Arnheim, Rudolf. 1969. Visual Thinking. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Aristotle. 1931. De Anima, trans. J.A. Smith in W.D. Ross (ed.) The Works of Aristotle, vol. 3, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Downey, Greg. 2005. Learning Capoeira. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Feld, Steven. 1990. Sound and Sentiment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Hahn, Tomie. 2007. Sensational Knowledge: Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.

Helmreich, Stefan. 2007. “An anthropologist underwater: Immersive soundscapes, submarine cyborgs, and transductive ethnography.” American Ethnologist 34: 621-41

Howes, David. 2011. “The Senses” in Fran Mascia-Lees, ed. A Companion to the Anthropology of the Body and Embodiment. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell,

Howes, David. 2009. “Introduction” in David Howes, ed., The Sixth Sense Reader. Oxford: Berg.

Marchand, Trevor. 2010. “Embodied cognition and communication: Studies with British fine woodworkers,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 16 (s1). pp. 100-120.

Trubek, Amy. 2008. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Background photograph: Three Men in Costume, with Ornaments and Weapons In Jungle Clearing, Smithsonian Institution, Haddon Expedition 1891.

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